Works of the Flesh, Fruit of the Spirit

In Galatians 5:13-25, the Apostle Paul provides us with two parallel lists. In one list, Paul gives us examples of the works of the flesh. In the other, he identifies the fruit of the spirit. What strikes me, however, is how dissimilar these lists are. Works and fruits are not, in fact, parallel.

Works of the Flesh

The works of the flesh that Paul identifies are sexual immorality, impurity, depravity,
idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. (Galatians 5:19-21). In Greek, they are πορνεία, ἀκαθαρσία, ἀσέλγεια, εἰδωλολατρία, φαρμακεία, ἔχθραι, ἔρις, ζῆλοι, θυμοί, ἐριθείαι, διχοστασίαι, αἱρέσεις,  φθόνοι, μέθαι, κῶμοι καὶ τὰ ὅμοια.

Paul’s list of flesh-works describes life in the Mediterranean culture of the first century. It is filled with sexual, spiritual and social disorders. And, Paul notes, those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Paul’s language regarding sexual indecency is strong and pejorative, but it is also euphemistic and inclusive. He doesn’t so much name the vices as he characterizes them. The first three items in Paul’s list are porneia, akatharsia and aselgeia. Porneia is a broad term that includes all sorts of illicit sexual behaviors. Akatharsia is uncleanness or impurity. Aselgeia is an act that is shocking to public decency. The terms are often found in Christian lists of vices, both in the New Testament and in the early church. When Paul speaks like this, it is partly for modesty’s sake (there are just some things that one doesn’t say in polite company) and partly because it simply wasn’t necessary to catalog Greco-Roman sexual vices.

In general, first century Judaism (and by extension, early Christianity) did not have a favorable opinion of the sexual mores that they saw at work in the culture around them. The Greeks and Romans, on the other hand, saw nothing wrong in many of the practices that ancient Jews and Christians condemned. Some of the acts that Paul would have considered illicit, unclean and shocking, his neighbors would have considered tolerable, ordinary or even honorable.

In the current discussion of same-sex intimacy, you will sometimes hear Christians dismiss the “handful of verses” in the New Testament that directly address homosexual coitus (a perfectly good Sheldon Cooper word). The handful grows significantly larger when passages such as this are included. Paul did not often single out particular sexual practices for special condemnation; he did not need to. His audience would have understood Paul’s wide-ranging denunciation of Greco-Roman debauchery.

The works of the flesh also include pagan idolatry and sorcery. For the ancient Greeks and Romans, of course, the worship of the gods was a public virtue, not a vice. Gods and divine beings were everywhere, from the home to the field to the countless shrines and temples that adorned their major cities. The well-being of the individual, the family and society as a whole depended on the proper worship of the gods, the offering of appropriate gifts and the performance of the correct rites. Priests and magicians used arcane arts to discern and influence the divine will. Again, Paul’s language is broad and inclusive. Contemporary scholarship seems to be obsessed with the imperial cult of Caesar. Early Christians, however, seemed to take a broader approach to ancient idolatry: it was pervasive, and it was all bad.

Paul continues by listing a number of acts that lead to public disorder, social division, violence and human suffering. The martial culture of the Mediterranean world considered at least one of the vices in Paul’s list to be a qualified virtue. For the Greek, thumos was not just anger or rage, but the “spiritedness” that moved people to act decisively and courageously. It was the inner fire that drove people toward honorable achievement. It was the inward passion that bridled at injustice, especially toward one’s own honor. Thumos empowered warriors to fight bravely and to gain the victory. Excessive, undisciplined thumos, on the other hand, could lead warriors into lawless and foolish behavior. Paul does not have such a tempered view of thumos. The militaristic, honor-and-shame culture of the Greco-Roman world was built on thumos, and it was a work of the flesh.

Many of the other words Paul uses in this section reflect how the culture both applauded and feared self-assertion and the warrior spirit. In Greek mythology, Strife (eris) was the sister of the war-god Ares. Among her children were Hardship, Pain, Starvation and Murder. Zeal (zelos)  was the god of struggle, the brother of Victory and Strength and Force. He could also represent petty jealousy and contentious rivalry, and be seen as a companion of Strife.

Paul concludes by denouncing the Greek penchant for drunkenness and carousing. The ancient world relished its parties filled with excessive drinking, sexual license and the opportunity to throw off all restraint. For Paul, they were a destructive work of the flesh.

Together, the works of the flesh describe the Greco-Roman society in which Paul lived.   Paul is not just enumerating individual, personal vices. Rather, he is drawing us a picture of the culture that surrounded the church. Society not only tolerated the works of the flesh, it celebrated them. It relied on them for its supposed health and happiness.

The flesh had built an anti-Kingdom. The vices that characterized Paul’s culture do not belong within God’s eternal realm. Those who cling to the works of the flesh, Paul says, will not inherit the Kingdom of God. The works of the flesh are evil, both because they offend God and because they destroy human community as God intended it to be.

Fruit of the Spirit

Paul finds it necessary to enumerate some works of the flesh, I suppose, because so much of his letter emphasizes Gentile Christian freedom from works of the law (i.e., circumcision and the specific covenantal acts required or prohibited in the Law of Moses). Freedom, however, is not a license to indulge one’s passions. The law of love remains: you will love your neighbor as yourself. The works of the flesh which Paul enumerates not only violate the law of love, they are indicators which point to the fact that one is not in fact living by the spirit. Those who live by the spirit don’t gratify the lusts (that is, the inordinate desires) of the flesh.

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). It is difficult, if not impossible, to make this list correspond with Paul’s list of vices in 5:19-21. Paul does not say that the fruit of the spirit is modesty, chastity or sobriety. Even in the social attributes, the spirit’s fruits don’t quite line up. Many of the works of the flesh are primarily visible in the contentious relationships between people. It takes two to fight or quarrel or draw up battle lines. Many of the fruits of the spirit, on the other hand, don’t depend on what the other guy does. I can be patient, kind or generous no matter how you treat me.

This difference between these lists is a very significant point, I think. Only as God produces fruit in us are we really free. Let me explain what I mean with a simple analogy. There are addicts whose entire existence revolves around remaining sober. And there are children who grow up in troubled homes whose entire adult life becomes a means of rebelling against their family of origin. Neither is truly free. They are still tied to the problem that plagued them by a giant invisible tether. We only escape that which enslaves us when it no longer serves as the focal point for our lives. The opposite of performing the works of the flesh is not attempting to refrain from them. It is, rather, living by the spirit who takes us in a whole new direction.

Paul’s words demand both a “stop” and a “start.” Stop doing evil. Start letting the spirit of God that lives in you by faith put your life in order. You can’t do one without the other.

This passage, it seems to me, is very Wesleyan in its orientation. It matters how God’s people live. God’s grace in Jesus Christ doesn’t give people a “get out of hell free” card; it empowers them. Simply refraining from evil won’t get you into the kingdom, but indulging evil is a sign that you are on the wrong path. “Those who are practicing (verb prasso, present active participle) such things (i.e. the works of the flesh) will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

Christians who live by the spirit are promised deliverance from the power of sin. Those who belong to Christ have “crucified the flesh with its passions and lusts,” freeing them from slavery to the desires that have been twisted out of their frame in this present evil age. But even more than that, the spirit will put their lives in order (if they will let him).

Christian morality is inseparable from life in God’s kingdom. It is easy to mistake the moral content of the faith for the faith itself. All that some people hear is “Don’t do x.” The church does need to let the world know how destructive its ways can be, but the Christian message has never been simply “Don’t do x” or even “Let God help you stop doing x.” The one who died and rose to reconcile us to God has poured out his spirit to transform our lives. Continuing to habitually practice the works of the flesh is evidence that we have not yet let God do the work that he wants to do in us (or, at least that he’s not finished with us yet). God doesn’t simply wipe the slate clean; he produces something new in us.

Revised June 1, 2016